Monday, January 27, 2014

Mirror Neurons and Habit Training

Before sharing thoughts on physical habit training, I thought share some news I alluded to last month. I've started a math blog focused on helping parents and teachers to see the beauty and joy of math. Math lovers and haters alike are invited to read about captain ideas that inspire me. Many of the downloads or ideas shared are great props for doing RDI. Yesterday, Pamela and I made picture frames through paper sloyd. I curve stitched mine. If you want to learn more, head over to my new blog!

Today's contribution to the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival how mirror neurons (MN) play a role in physical habit training. Mirror neurons in the brain fire not only when we perform an action but also when we watch someone perform it. The activity in the brain is the same whether we do something or we see it modeled for us. Some believe mirror neurons are important to imitation, empathy, social, and language development, which are all affected in autism.

RDI consultant Simona Onnis outlined the role mirror neurons have in learning as follows:
  • Child visually observes (sensory).
  • Child observes a motor action (motor planning).
  • Child applies meaning to the action (activation of MN), by understanding the intention of the one who acts and by anticipating the possible goal of action.
  • The child retains the experience in his memory (retention).
Yesterday, Pamela and I made picture frames using paper sloyd. This model is the third one elaborating upon a 6" by 6" square. Pamela learned how to construct the square using a ruler and pencil. We made a paper envelope for our first model. I took a small step, briefly explained it, pause, and waited expectantly. Drew a point at the top, described, and waited for her to do the same. Drew a point in the middle, described, and waited. Drew a point at the bottom, described, and waited. We followed the same process for drawing a line, rotating the paper, drawing more points and lines, etc.

Last week, we made a wall pocket out of the square and, yesterday, the picture frame. Because each model begins with the same square, Pamela learns to tap into her episodic memory. Next week, we will make a pinwheel beginning with the 6" square. The article about mirror neurons explains how to make sure we give our children the opportunity for their mirror neurons to fire in sharing an experience. Paper sloyd done right fits the bill. First, we are making little keepsakes with our hands. Each model involves following a pattern which is elaborated upon from one model to the next. Varying the pattern makes the process dynamic. I work slowly, involve nonverbal communication, and speak descriptively rather than rely on commands. I pause and wait for Pamela to engage. At certain points, I say or do something to increase anticipation or invite curiosity.

I take these same steps with children in the spectrum at our school. Eman recently shifted from half to full days, so he didn't know that students have chores after lunch. Before heading out to recess, they do a chore and sit down to wait for recess. After he finished eating lunch, I said to him, "Guess what?"

"What?" he said.

"Do you know what kids do before recess?"

"No, what?"

I pointed to Tman, a friend that Eman admires. Tman was wiping the book shelves with a duster. Eman said, "What's that?"

"A duster! The kids have chores after recess."

He saw a duster on the table and asked, "Can I help?"

"Sure!" So, I called Tman over and told him that Eman would like to help. I just sat and watched while mirror neurons and partnering with a peer took care of teaching Eman what he needed to learn. When they were finished, Eman was wandering around, so I said to him, "Poor Jman!"

"What's wrong?"

"Jman's chore partner isn't here today. He has to wipe four tables all by himself." I pointed to Jman who was busy with a Clorox wipe.

"Really? Can I help?"

"Yes! I know he'd appreciate that!" So, I called Jman over and Jman came up with roles. "Hey, Mrs. Tammy, I could pick up things while Eman wipes under them." I told him that was a great idea. The two of them wiped the last table together.

Again, I spotted Eman wondering, so I let his mirror neurons figure out something else. "Do you know what the kids do while they wait for recess?"

"No, what do they do?"

I encouraged him to look around and he said, "Some are sitting quietly." Then, I pointed to one of the teachers and explained, "Mrs. Jenn is watching to see who is ready for recess. The way you tell her is by sitting quietly. She calls the quietest kids first." His eyes widened and he sat down, lips sealed. He didn't say a single word and, to his delight, she called him first to recess.

In this case, learning to do chores was to prop to a more important lesson: watching what others do and copying their good choices. Eman loves helping people: he's eager to help me push in the chairs, take care of the pond, sweep the outdoor patio, and walk to pick up lunch. Watching people do good deeds helps him develop a habit of service and builds positive memories of making the world a better place.
Alertness – Many a good man and woman thinks regretfully of the opportunities in life they have let slip through a certain physical inertness. They missed the chance of doing some little service, or some piece of courtesy, because they did not see in time. It is well to bring up children to think it is rather a sad failure if they miss a chance of going a message, opening a door, carrying a parcel, any small act of service that presents itself. (Page 108)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Seizing Opportunities

This year, the bimonthly Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival is spending an entire month on one suggested theme from Mason's third volume: School Education. January's topic is physical training, and, as a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, I have had my fair share of that! Since this blog focuses on autism, homeschooling, and now private schooling, I'll turn to one aspect of physical training that is vital for all of us, but especially people in the autism spectrum.

Mason believed that an alert child will have more opportunities to see. Opportunities to do what? To serve others, to gain knowledge, to do something. Imagine for a moment what a daunting thing that can be to teach a child in the autism spectrum. First, let's read what my favorite educator wrote,
Alertness.––Many a good man and woman thinks regretfully of the opportunities in life they have let slip through a certain physical inertness. They missed the chance of doing some little service, or some piece of courtesy, because they did not see in time. It is well to bring up children to think it is rather a sad failure if they miss a chance of going a message, opening a door, carrying a parcel, any small act of service that presents itself. They should be taught to be equally alert to seize opportunities of getting knowledge; it is the nature of children to regard each grown-up person they meet as a fount of knowledge on some particular subject; let their training keep up the habit of eager inquiry. Success in life depends largely upon the cultivation of alertness to seize opportunities, and this is largely a physical habit. We all know how opportunity is imaged––a figure flying past so rapidly that there is no means of catching him but, in advance, by the forelock which overhangs his brow (Page 109).
I believe the number one thing parents and teachers do to discourage autism spectrum children from thinking is to issue commands. I know we're often in a hurry. Our kids process more slowly. But, if we consistently give them directives, they only have to be alert to us. They don't have to pay attention to their environment, much less persons in their environment.

One child with autism rarely looked at anyone at the beginning of the school year. I suspect that a steady diet of "look at me" prompts was the issue. He didn't realize the benefits of looking at people because others were looking for him. The adults at our school use a different style of communication as described in my friend Di's poster. While we may help students observe, we encourage them to think for themselves.

Slowly, over time, things began to change for him. Because he wasn't paying attention to his classmates, he appeared to cut in line. For a couple of weeks, in our half hour of individualized work, we played follow the leader. The leader took all sorts of unexpected and circuitous routes. He had to be alert to changes in direction even though he knew the expedient way to put lunch bags in the refrigerator. After that, he had no problems in line.

Because we rely more on facial expressions and gestures and not on commands, he has learned to be alert to what we say with our bodies as well as with our words. He has learned to look in the direction of the speaker during group time as well as share joint attention when it's just two people. He is even trying to play with his friends at recess. He is growing in awareness of how his actions affect his friends.

Pamela has come a long way in cultivating the habit of alertness. She enjoys doing little things for me like retrieve the mail every day, bring groceries in the house, and carry our lunch bags into the school. She shops for things and helps us remember all sorts of details. Occasionally, I've completely forgotten about meals on wheels until she reminded me! She still has some lessons to learn. She doesn't always remember to hold the door when I'm behind her.

And, what do I do? Do I prompt her to hold the door? No!

Sometimes, I wait until she realizes she has left me behind.

Sometimes, I cry out, "Hey! What about me?"

Sometimes, I catch her before the door slams and say, "My hands are full."

Sometimes, I knock on the door.

By avoiding the direct command, "Hold the door," I'm requiring her to be alert to my needs and to think for herself what opportunity she can seize. Mason knew that direct commands lessens the ability of a child to remember. In training Johnny to shut the door, she didn't give him a direct command when he forgot. She calls his name pleasantly. She makes a declarative comment, "I said I should try to remind you." The mother of the girl lacing her boots uses eye contact and facial expression to remind her to work more quickly.

Finally, alertness is a two-way street. For us to cultivate alertness in our children, we must cultivate it in ourselves. Once we settle on a new habit to form, we must be watchful of those situations in which the habit can be trained naturally. We must be alert and spring into action with wide and varied responses of indirectly reminding our children of what is not to be forgotten. We are wise if we mind Mason's words about our own habits: "Tact, watchfulness, and persistence are the qualities she must cultivate in herself; and, with these, she will be astonished at the readiness with which the child picks up the new habit" (Page 122).